News Gene Kerrigan

Friday 21 October 2016

It's as though they despise democracy

We have come to accept the right of ministers to treat parliament with contempt, writes Gene Kerrigan

Published 14/06/2015 | 02:30

It was surprising, watching Richard Bruton at work last week, treating the Dail as though answering questions was beneath him.

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And a little bit shocking. There are people in the Dail who are chancers, grabbers, space fillers and time servers. Bruton has never been one of those.

Bruton is an intelligent, capable politician. He's a Fine Gael TD in my constituency, and he's known as a hard worker. He is not a stroker. He appears to be a man of goodwill who treats his constituents with respect.

Okay, he's got the bog standard, hand-me-down policies beloved of right wing politicians. Which kind of puts a brake on thinking. As Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation - well, he's enthusiastic and he puts in the long hours.

Last week, Enda Kenny was away. At Leaders' Questions, Richard Bruton was sent into the Dail chamber to stand in for the leader of Fine Gael.

Parliament, very roughly, has two jobs. To legislate and to make accountable. It was the latter function, that of making the executive accountable to the Dail, that occupied Richard Bruton last week. He was there to answer questions. It's a simple job. You're asked a question, you answer it.

In practice, ministers have polluted the system. If a question is tricky, they simply don't answer it. This deprives parliament and citizens of information they need if they are to understand - and thereby affect - how they're being governed. Withholding information is a corruption of parliament.

In the absence of information to which we're entitled, we can't properly assess policies or processes. Neither parliament nor the citizens can intervene where questionable practices are possibly damaging society.

This sometimes results in inquiries, tribunals, court cases - all expensive and unnecessary. Worse, things happen out of sight that may damage us and we will never know what really happened.

Here's how Richard Bruton, last week, supported his party leader in rendering the Dail irrelevant.

Almost a month ago, Socialist Party TD Paul Murphy asked Enda Kenny how many people have paid the Water Tax - an entirely legitimate question, and one with relevance to a controversial government policy.

Kenny winked and sneered and refused to answer. He told Murphy to "toddle along" to Irish Water and they would tell him.

It's the kind of performance we have become used to. It's the kind of shallowness which, I suspect, caused Richard Bruton to lead a challenge to Kenny's leadership in 2010, knowing Kenny would almost certainly become Taoiseach, and was not up to the job.

Murphy went to Irish Water and asked his question and they wouldn't tell him. He put in a Freedom of Information request and they wouldn't tell him.

Last week he had two very specific questions for Richard Bruton to answer: Have the figures for rates of payment been discussed between Irish Water and the Government? How many of those due to pay have paid the water charges by now and how many have not?

Bruton said he didn't have that information. I find that hard to believe. He's a member of Cabinet and he surely must know if the Government has discussed this matter with Irish Water? And if he didn't have approximate figures on how many haven't paid the Water Tax it was his job to say that and to get the figures and give them to Murphy within the hour.

Instead of answering, Bruton told the Dail how important water is: ". . . the establishment of Irish Water is an important national infrastructure . . . We are now introducing a system whereby we will have a single utility which will have a revenue stream . . . We need a modern water infrastructure that is fit for purpose . . . It will be available to support job creation, home ownership and home building . . ."

This is how ministers pollute the Dail. It's almost as if they don't rate democracy.

Had he been frank, Bruton could have said, "No, I won't answer - it might benefit you politically if I did, so I won't." Instead, he made some general remarks about Irish Water, not a jot of information in them - just words vaguely related to the subject.

Murphy pointed out that Bruton hadn't answered the very specific questions and asked them again.

Bruton said: "I can assure Deputy Paul Murphy that the introduction of Irish Water has been a very important element of a strategy to improve our water system . . . In a modern economy we need a modern water system. We have put in place a utility that will establish a properly managed approach . . ."

It was a naked, deliberate attack on the function of parliament, carried out openly, in front of his peers - knowing they don't care.

It would be bad enough if only Bruton and Kenny did this - but it's now standard practice.

When Deputies make long introductory speeches, the Ceann Comhairle, Sean Barrett, properly interrupts them by demanding, "A question, please". He did so with Murphy.

I have never, ever heard Barrett say, "An answer, please", when ministers blatantly refuse to answer, and instead fill up time with trivial and irrelevant remarks. It's apparently none of his business.

It's apparently no one's business that ministers now manifestly treat parliament with this kind of contempt. The contempt shown to parliament by ministers is no less damaging to democracy than that of those who actualy profess not be believe in the democratic system. At least they do not claim to prize democracy or to give a damn for the will of the people.

Paul Murphy quoted Enda Kenny, in words the leader of Fine Gael spoke the day before all this: "I have been a supporter for a very long time of the idea that Dail questions should be answered as fully and as completely as possible."

We are so far down the rabbit hole that the man who winks and sneers, instead of answering questions, can make such a statement, knowing his own party and Labour will back him up.

We don't have a Taoiseach, we have only the leader of Fine Gael - a man who takes no pride in governing on behalf of the people, who merely operates on behalf of the party.

And his Ministers, who are sworn to govern the state on behalf of the people, use their office to defend and enhance party interests.

Last week, the Irish Independent revealed that the Governor of the Central Bank, Patrick Honohan, wants the state to "burn" Anglo bondholders.

The "moral case", he said, "is unassailable".

Bit late in the day, Paddy. There's just small change left, now we've paid tens of billions to make up to the bad gamblers for their failed investments.

Says, I to myself: "Give it ten seconds . . ."

And, sure enough, five, four, three, two, one - and Joan Burton was out of the traps, "vowing" to fight the bondholders.

Good old Joan.

Year after year, the politicians paid billions, to make up for the losses of the gamblers - and borrowed those billions, on our behalf, and Joan was OK with that.

Sure, we could always cut dole for the young folk, rip off single parents and asset strip the hospitals.

Now, when Honohan gives burning bondholders the nod, Joan is up for a fight. Can it be long before she snarls, "It's Labour's way or the bondholders' way"?

Over here, a parliament comfortable in its own forced subordination to the will of ministers. Over there, the likes of Ms Burton, having spent four complacent years taking orders from the European Central Bank, now shamelessly jumping on a populist bandwagon.

Well matched.

Mind you, I thought Richard Bruton might be above all that.

Sunday Independent

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